Best Spirits of 2013

By Lou Bustamante

Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum

With Black Barrel Rum, Mount Gay master blender Allen Smith blends aged pot-still rums with aged column-distilled rum and then moves them into charred Bourbon casks ("black barrels") to create a spirit that tastes as if a rum had a baby with a Bourbon that was one-quarter Scotch. It's saline and smoky, with the spice, citrus and molasses funk common to Barbados rums, and cherry and cola-like characteristics that make it a perfect gateway rum for whiskey drinkers. Use it in a Manhattan for a softer and rounder variation on the classic.
Imported by Rémy Cointreau USA, NY; 43% abv, $30

Sullivans Cove Tasmanian Single Malt Whiskies

Sullivans Cove whiskies are markedly different than any others. Master distiller Patrick Maguire, a born and bred Tasmanian, seeks to capture the terroir of the island in the whisky, aging them in 200- and 300-liter barrels for 11 years. The Double Cask marries whiskies aged in used French oak Port barrels and American oak Bourbon barrels for a dram that's sweet and almost creamy, with a lingering flavor of fresh baked whole grain bread; the American Oak Cask goes beyond the expected vanilla hit to offer a grain flavor that goes in a delightful hoppy, almost pilsner direction, while the French Oak Cask is even richer, with spice picked up from Port barrels.
Imported by Purple Valley Imports USA, Pittsburgh, PA; Double Barrel, 40% abv, $99; American Oak, 47.5% abv, $155; French Oak, 47.5% abv, $155

Pow-Wow Botanical Rye Whiskey

In a reference to early colonial American herbal concoctions, Georgetown Trading Co. has taken rye whiskey and infused it with a barrage of herbs and spices. The result tastes neither exactly like a whiskey nor a liqueur, nor like anything else, really. The orange and spice scents suggest sweetness, yet there's only a hint of sugar; the leading notes of saffron and orange peel bloom with woodier flavors like anise, vanilla and licorice root. It's delicious on the rocks or in an Old-Fashioned (use a restrained hand on the bitters), and excels in a Hot Toddy.
Georgetown Trading Co., Los Angeles, CA; 45% abv, $40/750ml

Tapatio Tequila

Tapatio, popular in Mexico for 75 years, has finally made its way to US shelves. Made at La Alteña distillery from estate-grown blue agave from the Arandas highlands of Jalisco by master distiller Carlos Camarena, this Tequila is renowned for delivering luscious agave flavor at a great price. The Blanco is vibrant with citrusy, earthy sweetness and roasted fruit scents that follow through in the flavor, plus cinnamon and menthol notes that add complexity. The Reposado is woodier, more mineral and roasted-agave in flavor. After 18 months in used Bourbon casks, the Añejo emerges pungent with dark-roast agave, brown sugar, lime zest and heavy vanilla tones—but not so much so as to mask complex notes like cacao and dried chile.
Imported by Domaine Charbay Distillers, Ukiah, CA; 40% abv, $33 to $44/liter

Luxardo Aperitivo Liqueur

Luxardo Aperitivo Liqueur arrived on our shores just in time for this summer's heat waves. It clocks in at a mild 11 percent alcohol, with less sugar and bitterness than the Campari-style bitters of Turin, and a small, cold glass with plenty of ice, soda water and a slice of citrus quickly became my go-to pre-dinner drink. While you could drink it alone, it is designed to be lengthened with sparkling water or Prosecco, the bubbles aromatizing the botanicals and citrus fruit, and keeping the sweetness in check.
Imported by Anchor Distilling Co., San Francisco, CA; 11% abv, $19/750ml

Alipús Mezcals

Once considered Tequila's rough and rowdy little brother, mezcal has grown out of its worm-in-the-bottle phase, now doing its best to outshine its sibling. Alipús's trio of mezcals is a case in point, a fascinating and delicious study in how much altitude and the distiller's hand affect the final product. The San Juan Del Río is made from espadín agave that's dry-farmed and grown in iron-rich soil at 4,600 feet; mezcalero Don Joel Cruz then ferments the crushed roasted agave in open oak vats before distilling, making a fruity mezcal with light smoke, spice and dried corn husk notes. For the San Andrés, the espadín agave is grown at 5,000 feet in calciferous low hills and fermented in cypress vats by Don Valente Angel; it's more vegetal, with earthy and floral qualities. Don Cosmé Hernandez grows the espadín agave for the San Baltazar Guélavila on rocky hills at 5,700 feet and ferments the must in pine vats; it's a wonderfully funky, smoky mezcal that's lightly sweet and a little fruity. Taken together, these offer exceptional value and are a must-have for anyone interested in mezcal.
Imported by Craft Distillers, Ukiah, CA; San Andrés, 48.1% abv; San Juan Del Río, 48.5% abv; San Baltazar Guélavila, 48.4% abv; all $45

St. George Spirits Dry Rye Reposado Gin

Two years ago, distiller Lance Winters of St. George Distillery created a gin for whiskey lovers with his Dry Rye Gin, made by infusing an unaged pot-distilled rye spirit with juniper berries, black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel and lime peel. The newly released Reposado version ages for a year and a half in French and American oak, after which it tastes more like a botanically enhanced whiskey. It's gorgeously fragrant and layered in flavor, transitioning from malt to vanilla, fruit and menthol. It's terrific in a simple Martini made with equal parts gin and good rosé vermouth, like Imbue's Petal & Thorn, with an orange twist.
St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA; 49.5% abv, $50/750ml

Cacao Prieto Rums

Daniel Prieto Preston is an aerospace engineer who comes from a family of sugar cane and cacao farmers in the Dominican Republic. He launched Cacao Prieto in 2010, setting up a chocolate factory first, then a distillery more recently in Brooklyn, New York. Taking an "if it grows together, it goes together" approach, Prieto Preston blends his white rum (crafted from organic evaporated cane juice and fermented with wine yeasts) with organic cacao beans and barrel-ages it to create the most exquisitely robust expression of chocolate I've ever enjoyed. Called Don Rafael Cacao Rum, it's redolent of roasted coffee, tobacco and cacao, as intense as drinking dark chocolate. While the Don Rafael has no sugar, the Don Esteban Cacao Liqueur does, getting enough sweetness from an addition of cane sugar to take the edge off the cacao's natural bitterness, but not so much that it gets cloying.
Cacao Prieto, Brooklyn, NY; Don Rafael Cacao Rum, 40% abv, $56; Don Esteban Cacao Liqueur, 40% abv, $48

Camus Ile de Ré Cliffside Cellar Cognac

The Ile de Ré is an island off the west coast of La Rochelle in the Cognac region of France, where Camus ages a range of spirits, including the Cliffside Cellar Cognac XO Brandy. This bottling gets barrel-aged twice: first in cellars, and then in the Fort de La Prée, a monument constructed in 1626 overlooking the ocean. That results in a saline, vanilla-scented Cognac with perfectly extracted oak notes. It's wonderfully salty-sweet, with caramel-like notes playing off an almost peaty earthiness. Enjoy it neat, just like a Scotch.
Imported by CIL Amerique, Manhasset, NY; 40% abv, $99

Hophead Hop Vodka

Anchor Distilling shares space with Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. David King, the president of AD, found himself surrounded by the intense aroma of hops and began thinking about ways to use the plant in a spirit. After much experimentation, head distiller Bruce Joseph and brewmaster Mark Carpenter came up with Hophead Vodka, using Anchor's small copper pot stills and two varieties of hops. It smells like a cross between a forest, hoppy beer and resin, and tastes more like gin than vodka, with floral and red apple flavors and only a faint hint of sweetness. It's outstanding in a Martini with dry vermouth (two parts Hophead to one part vermouth) garnished with plenty of green olives.
Anchor Distilling Co. San Francisco, CA; 45% abv, $35/750ml

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits Annual Buying Guide, November 2013.